A Day in the Life of a Quail Conservationist-Hunter

aa395ba6-643e-47cf-9b00-e03fdddf46f7 Above: Dr. Dwayne Elmore, extension wildlife specialist at Oklahoma State University, right, and Quail Forever Public Relations Manager Jared Wiklund check out some habitat during a Sooner State quail hunt.

By Tom Keer

"When it comes to quail and prairie-chickens our job is to create habitat and game that will sustain itself over time.  To do so requires clear and open-minded thinking to uncover the right way to manage land. 
— Dr. Dwayne Elmore, Extension Wildlife Specialist at Oklahoma State University

The ocean-side hump along the soft sand is never bad if you walk along the water's edge. Twelve foot tides that toss bladderwort like ragdolls pack down the beach which makes for easier going. The white-water washes around your boots adds drag, but it's far better than walking on the flat land higher up. One mile in that dry, loose granular is like walking two miles on dirt. No matter, for all we want to do is to grab a sliver of tide that hopefully holds a big body of striped bass.

Fishing the Cape Cod coast for striped bass doesn't have a lick to do with quail conservation, or does it? I was sharing the sand with Dr. Dwayne Elmore, the Extension Wildlife Specialist at Oklahoma State University. He's a faculty member in the Department of Natural Resource Ecology and Management. That's a mouthful, but he's also the Bollenbach Endowed Chair in Wildlife Biology, and in that role he focuses on game bird research for quail, turkey and greater and lesser prairie-chickens. Since he lives in Oklahoma, I guess one could say it was good he got here “sooner” rather than later.

The last time I saw him was on a hunt with John Bella, Laura McIver, James Dietsch and members from their Central Oklahoma 89ers Quail Forever Chapter. Taking Dwayne fishing was my way of thanking him for the hard work he, his team and the Quail Forever chapters did on bringing wild quail back to public Sooner Land. On that trip I harvested wild bobwhite quail, sure, but most notable was my first-ever wild scalie. Putting him on fish was my goal for the day, and I hoped today would be the saltwater equivalent of the 23 coveys we moved on one day.

A day in the life of a conservationist-hunter is incredibly interesting and diverse. His formal job description calls for a split of his time to include 75% extension work and 25% research. Every part of that time is oriented around the use of academic research to improve habitat and wildlife for public use. On some days, Dwayne works with an A-Team of graduate students to see if their methods to increase quail populations are working.

n other days he works with wildlife agencies, landowners and hunters, all of whom want to improve habitat. Sometimes he'll consult with non-governmental organizations and interest groups like Quail Forever. Delivering seminars at consumer and trade shows like National Pheasant Fest and Quail Classic is as regular as delivering scientific, research-based seminars to various departments of natural resources.

It's easy to see how Dwayne spends about half of his year on the road.

Yet on this coast so far from home, Dwayne showed a curiosity about the process. Most anglers want to know where to go to bang fish, but with our 12-foot tides he was curious about how it all worked together. He was eager to know about wave formation, rip currents and the difference between onshore and offshore bars. He was a quick study of the harbor and horsehead seals, quickly understood the importance of current, and had a particular bead on shore birds. Basic birds like eiders, surf scoter and black-backed sea gulls, were easy spots, so he quickly moved on the more intricate oyster catchers and piping plovers.

“Spent much time on the coast?” I asked him.

“I’ve been to Maine once for a few days,” he said. 

I was shocked. "Where’s home?”

“Tennessee,” he said. “My wife Leslie is from Southwest Georgia.”

Dwayne and other excellent conservationist-hunters are always learning, he was doing that here on the sand. In his assessment of New England birds, mammals, fish and habitat is a deeper way of thinking. His is a way to understand how everything relates, and his way of thinking is continuous. Simply put, Dwayne’s motor is always running for his thinking and understanding is what he does every day.

“I’m a problem solver,” he said. “Everything that I do focuses on figuring out an answer to a problem. My focus is on game birds and their habitat, so let’s say a stakeholder — be it a politician, a landowner, an agency or anyone else — comes to us with a question. Let’s say that question is ‘how do we increase the populations of wild bobwhite quail on public land?’ Well that question becomes the foundation of our study. We review research that has been done to date and examine what worked and what did not. We ask the question “why?” all the time. It’s not enough to know what worked or didn’t work, we need to know why. Some of the next steps are to establish a research project to test a hypothesis. Our team and I work through hypotheses over time, and when we’re ready we’ll review the results."

“The most important part comes when we publish a research paper and it goes into a highly-critical peer review process. Peers are our harshest critics, right? Ask your hunting buddy what he honestly thinks of your dog, your choice of shotguns or your shooting and you’ll get a view different from your family’s thoughts. So our concepts are vetted, we’ll have to defend the data to be sure it is logical and accurate. We’ll reexamine our thinking and interpretation of the results until they are sound and practical. Once completed we’ll disseminate our findings through a network of journals, field consultations and seminars.”

We went back to fishing and each picked up a quick fish. Putting two bass on the beach made me hope for lights-out fishing, but it shut off just as fast as it started. We went up, higher up into the tide until we reached a channel that joined the main flow. We fished our way out on the bar, and about 15-minutes later a big body of fish dropped down to feed. Dwayne had a fish-per-cast action for a few hours, and during that time he did not drop one single fish. He’s equally adept with a rod or a gun.

“I love to travel because it opens my eyes,” Elmore said. “I see new things, I experience new areas, and I meet new people. Their conditions and situations challenge me to view the world as it is, not as I want it to be. And out of that approach comes creative thinking that helps us solve problems. Creative, solutions-oriented thinking is essential, particularly since my work carries me far outside of Oklahoma."

"We need to solve problems beyond the immediate need, and they need to carry over for a period of time. We’re not in the quick-fix business. And when it comes to quail and prairie-chickens, our job is to create habitat and game that will sustain itself over time. To do so requires clear and open-minded thinking to uncover the right way to manage land. It’s the most important part of my job. Everything else I do — from field days, lectures and working with land owners and hunters — depends on data.”

The tide ran slack so we drove to the area behind my house. Up until a decade ago the land held two coveys of wild bobwhite quail. It’s an area of white pines, scrub oaks, crushed broomstraw and failing bicolor lespedeza. Dwayne called it a Cape Cod Pine Barren.

I watched Elsmore study the area for several minutes, and could see how he drew from his experiences. And then in a flash he announced a restoration plan. “Maybe one in three or possibly one in two trees needs to come out to allow sunlight into the understory to encourage shrubs, forbs, and warm season grass. Two-to-three burns per decade to maintain the area as an open pine savannah. You could do some planting, but after the deadfall is gone and the rain and light shine down it’ll all come back. You could have a lot of quail here.” 

My neighbor’s house is for sale, so I thought about trying to convince him to relocate. But it’s better he doesn’t, for his impact on game birds and habitat is significantly greater as it is. Dwayne’s mind is always working. He’s a student in the classic sense, and his is an observant, thoughtful and insightful approach. For all I know he might factor in some observations he made while tonging striped bass into a solution for Minnesota walleye. 

As conservation-hunters, we need insight and wisdom. While the world clamors for a quick fix we need long-term solutions. It all starts with correct thinking which is what guys like Dwayne work on every day. His approach begins with a problem and finds a solution. It’s why we’re fortunate that Dwayne has chosen to study birds than to create healthy habitat. That level of thinking a process is why his projects thrive. I had a first-hand look at Dwayne Elmore’s work in the Oklahoma quail fields. I didn’t have a good view. Heck, I had Row 2, 50-yard line seats.